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Dames

The Busby Berkeley Collection

By 1934 the Hays Code, backed by the Legion of Decency, was beginning its long reign over the adult content in Hollywood pictures to which the effects this censorship still linger — one could argue that Hollywood has never recovered and still can only deal with sex in the most juvenile and exploitative of terms. As such, Dames (1934) is the last picture of the cycle of Berkeley films that's main plot still has that zing of amorality. The Hemmingway family is about to come into an inheritance from their Uncle Ezra Ounce (Hugh Hebert), a peculiar entrepreneur who's come to value decency and rightness. As such he's dismissed song-and-dance man Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell) from the family, and values his sister Matilda Hemmingway (Zasu Pitts), her husband Horace (Guy Kibbee) and their daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler). What Ezra doesn't know is that Barbara has been seeing Jimmy (how close a relation they are is never discussed), and he wants to put on a big show on Broadway with her as the star, but being with Jimmy and being on Broadway would lose her parents their $10 million inheritance. And as Ezra gears up his own personal Legion (while being addicted to Dr. Silvers Golden Elixir, which is 53% alcohol), Jimmy makes friends with Mabel Anderson (Joan Blondell) who has found a way to get money for the show out of Horace. The plot of Dames mostly wraps up around the hour mark when the show starts, and for the final third the film turns itself over to Busby Berkeley. He starts slow with "The Girl at the Ironing Board" (though the number ends with ironed shirts taking some form of life), but then moves to the surreal "I Only have Eyes for You" in which every woman becomes a version of Ruby Keeler, with a hundred girls playing imitators. It closes with the title number, an orgy of women looking gorgeous placed in kaleidoscopic patterns — and sometimes flying towards the camera for their close-ups. The plot of Dames is less fun than others in Warner's "Busby Berkeley Collection" box set, likely because the dishy backstage gossip of such 1933 entries as 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade helped make those films feel lived in. Here the plot is a piffle, but it'll do. The numbers are — as always — ingenious, and they make everything worthwhile. What Dames does well is bring into focus the voluptuous charms of Blondell, who feels like the woman Mae West always wanted to be. Warner presents the film in very pleasant full-frame transfer (1.33 OAR) with DD 1.0 audio. Extras include the featurette "Busby Berkeley's Kaleidoscopic Eyes" (12 min.), the period featurette "And She Learned About Dames" (9 min.), vintage shorts "Good Morning Eve" (19 min.) in two strip Technicolor, and "Melody Master: Don Redman & His Orchestra" (10 min.) vintage cartoons "Those Beautiful Dames" (7 min.) and "I Only Have Eyes for You" (8 min.), the radio promo "Direct From Hollywood" (12 min.) and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—DSH



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